Saturday, April 10, 2010

Flat World, Flat Earth, and Flyover States

Julian Sanchez has a very smart argument about epistemic closure among conservatives, and folks around the blogosphere have been linking to it. (h/t Matt Yglesias) Sanchez's basic argument is that rural traditionalists are moving toward "epistemic closure," the refusal to hear or process any information that conflicts with their worldview, because new communication technologies leave them uncomfortably close to less-traditional and less-conservative urban populations. Sanchez hypothesizes that:

You’ve got a local community where a certain set of cultural norms is so dominant that it’s just seen as obvious and natural ...[snip]. Except they’re now flooded with undeniable evidence that a hell of a lot of people don’t see things that way, and even hold their community in contempt for seeing things that way.


Epistemic closure is (in part) an attempt to compensate for the collapse of geographic closure. A function no longer effectively served by geographic segregation—because the digital equivalents of your local hangout are open to invasion by the hordes from New York and London—is being passed to media segregation.

Sanchez's basic insight is excellent, I think. And I suspect his argument is stronger than he knows, because this phenomenon is not new, or unique to the Age of the Internet.

There have been previous backlashes of the country against the city in American history, and some of those other backlashes have coincided with new technologies that made the big city seem much closer. I'm thinking of the wave of rural populism in the United States just after World War I, at the moment when movie theaters and broadcast radio were beginning to bring New York City to every small town in America. Then, too, New York City and its values started to seem too close, and too threatening to traditional values, and there was a pushback. The Scopes Monkey trial didn't happen when Darwin's model of evolution won over university biology departments; that happened in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The Scopes trial happens in 1922, when new media technologies suddenly thrust rural America into daily contact with their urban neighbors and their urban world-view.

More unsettling is the application of Sanchez's basic model to other situations. What is a jihadist, after all, but a person who experiences Western culture as "too close," too threatening, and too much to assimilate? (Let me say that I am not posing any moral equivalence between jihadist terrorism and any strand of American ideology. Countenancing mass murder puts al-Qaeda and their sympathizers beyond any moral pale. I'm trying to trace structural parallels between two ideologies, not to conflate them or treat both as equally extremist.) Jihadism is not fundamentally a traditional movement, but a flight to an artificial "traditionalism" in response to Western culture. Al-Qaeda isn't a movement of nomadic Bedouins, but a movement of highly urban, Westernized and educated Arabs; it recruits from the people who are most exposed to Western ideas and mores. Osama bin Laden is a person who could have lived comfortably in London or New York if he liked, and his rejection of the West is a very deliberate by someone who earlier enjoyed the fruits of Westernization.

What bin Laden's sympathizers evidently want is for the West to go away. The call for a purification of Islamic culture, and the turn toward the re-creation of an imagined and idealized past, is an attempt to reduce the feeling of being under foreign influence. The globalized "flat world" which Thomas Friedman believes will eventually smooth out local differences, is in fact exactly what makes the jihadists angry. In a flat world, whole societies are forced to realize that they are the provinces, and not the center; accepting globalization, for many people, means accepting that someplace else is more important than your place, and that you are a rube. The flat world brings Europe and America too damn close, leading jihadists to retreat into their rigid, epistemologically closed ideology.

Obviously, this is not to say that jihadists should be given what they want. They shouldn't, and they can't. The West is not going to go away, the global economy is not going to dissolve, and the Islamic Middle East is not going to influence Western culture as much as it is influenced by it. The jihadist vision of the world is fundamentally a rejection of the world as it is; even if Osama bin Laden got the things he allegedly wants (and which he understands perfectly well he cannot get), such as U.S. troops withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, he would still not be happy. Western culture and Western influence would still be there. He simply can't get what he wants, and on some level probably knows it.

But while the actual membership of Al-Qaeda are implacable and beyond any negotiation (because their key demands are impossible), it's important to think about how the West deals with potential jihadist sympathizers, with the teenagers whom the jihadists want to recruit and with the non-combatant civilians who might donate money to jihadist causes or support jihadist candidates.

As I understand it, lot of our current PR and propaganda aimed at Arab youth tries to trade on their affection for Western culture; your average teenager in Egypt or Jordan or Saudi Arabia may hate the U.S.'s policy on Israel, the thinking goes, but they love Michael Jackson. So our outreach strategy tries to leverage their attraction to Western music and pop culture. But they were always into Michael Jackson; the magnetic pull of our pop culture has always been part of the problem that jihadism purports to answer. Western pop culture raises questions about cultural identity and loyalties that jihadism (however dishonestly) promises to simplify. Western movies and music and fashions make young people feel like yokels, far away from where the cool stuff happens; jihadism offers them a rigid nativist pride, and tells them the world around them is all the world they need. I can't say that wooing the Muslim world with the most attractive parts of our culture is the wrong strategy, but the jihadists' appeal is designed to exploit our very attempts at wooing. Maybe this will simply take a long time, as love for the West and for the East wrestle in Arabic hearts. But if so, it will have to take as long as it takes.

No comments: